The Fourth Era Remembers

Nick Montfort’s “Interactive Fiction’s Fourth Era” ended with a wonderful surprise for me (though perhaps only because I had been thinking it the whole way through the essay).

“The basic framework of interactive fiction, in which approximately one event happens per conversational turn, means that this deficiency does not cause too many problems. But it also rules out richer simulation in which many things happen per turn (and are narrated in an interesting way), the use of flashbacks to events that occurred earlier in the interaction, and the ability to narrate events from different perspectives.”

I love this idea of the Fourth Era of Interactive Fiction. That, in order to be revolutionarily transformed, IF will essentially have to get more complex in its responses and ability to remember events that have taken place in the story and in what order these events have taken place. It seems a big undertaking: I imagine the code used to write interactive fiction stories now (Montfort mentions Inform as being a good writer) would have to be almost entirely altered to perhaps date code events and prioritize certains responses based on whether one event occurred before the other for one user versus another user. Montfort’s essay makes clear that IF is not simply a story, it is a world to be explored. Unlike traditional book narratives that have a start and an end, and every reader generally progresses through this narrative in the same order, IF lends itself to a more varied reading asking you to explore around different directions and hallways and tunnels and fields and on and on. While The Warbler’s Nest offered a Walkthrough, with essentially the shortest path to the end of the story, such a Walkthrough almost seems to defeat the purpose of Interactive Fiction where it’s preferable to see all there is to see than simply “beat the game.” In the spirit of that exploration, Montfort’s call for an IF that can provided many, and  diverse, responses and interaction for users seems an obvious course of action. You can certainly play an IF many times over, exploring different places and sometimes achieving a new ending, but in general the responses of the computer are based simply upon going to a place or picking up an item, and not on what order you explore places or the ways in which you might ask the computer to move forward. The Dreamhold does, though, have built into its code some of this remembering of events: at the beginning when you can squeeze to the narrow hallway to go up the stairs, I went up the stairs, then down the stairs, then up the stairs, then down the stairs, over and over again. While the actual IF content did not alter, interestingly the Turtorial Voice did notice that I was doing the same events, and that I had already been to the place I was just at.

“You’ve been here before, but it’s a particularly crowded room,” says the Turtorial Voice, acknowledged my prior entrance into the same room, and later, going down, it says “The first time you enter a room, you’ll see a detailed description. But if you return to a room, you see just the roomname, followed by a list of the more portable objects lying around.” So, this IF does have the capacity to remember where I have been, which is a start. I don’t think the Tutorial Voice quite compares with the vision Montfort has of the future of IF, but it’s a start. Now, if only the Tutorial Voice remembered how many times I went back and forth up the stairs and responded different every single time, maybe noticing new things, maybe just some snarky response about choosing a direction.


The Digital Ream

On April 5th, 2006, Nick Montfort sat down to write Ream, a 500 page (and word) long poem, with each page consisting of a single, one-syllable word in 14 point font. Later, this poem was translated into French by Anick Bergeron. But, before that, Montfort turned the poem into a literary hypertext for our digital pleasure. The result is (very basically) a webpage with a black background upon which a single word is written. Clicking on that word leads us to the next word, and clicking on that word leads to the next, and so on and so forth until you reach page 500 where clicking on the final word “zoom” brings you back to the the “title page.”

For all its simplicity, Ream gives us a lot to work with in terms of seeing adaptations from print to digital. Last week in class we seemed to get bogged down by the idea of adaptations of works intended to be printed, represented in the digital sphere, as opposed to works instantiated in the digital to begin with.Reampresents an interesting case, as part of me feels like Montfort may have envisioned this print work also as a digital work to begin with (doesn’t seem that far off an assumption since Montfort is quite the name in electronic literature circles). One thing the digital version of the poem inspires is the idea that each word in a work (whether print or digital) is basically a gateway to the next. In this case, each word is very literally a gateway, a piece of hypertext taking you to the next word once you’ve pressed on it. This emphasizes the importance of all words in the poem, and helps us feel as if there is purpose and connection to each word despite the apparent lack of coherence between them. In fact, the poem seems to speak more to the idea of how we read, and that we should take care to connect each word to the next, rather than actually presenting a story that demands this reading. For one, you must obscure the word in order to click on it, and secondly (as stated previously) there is not an immediately obvious contextual connect between these words. Furthermore, each word is embedded with a particular link to the next word. You cannot press word 230 (grim) and get anything except word 231 (groves). This emphasizes an order and an intention that we seems to sometimes miss with a lot of electronic literature that offers numerous links and seemingly infinite pathways. This is not to say that you cannot edit the URL inside the search bar to skip to a word “further down the ream,” which you can, and I most certainly did. While the print version may inspire some of these feelings, I think the use of digital hypertext is really a superior way of understanding how important word order and connection is.